During the show last night, the guys from Hem kept making jokes about how sad their music is--about how, as Dan Messé put it, their stock in trade is heartbreak. And it's true. In fact, while I was immersed in these songs I have come to know so well--"The Golden Day is Dying" (bits of whose lyrics you've gotten from me on a couple of occasions), "Carry Me Home," "Half Acre," "Strays," "Hollow," "Lazy Eye," "Lucky," "When I Was Drinking"--I realized that part of the reason I cherish this group as I do is that their music attends with such melancholy care to what it means to be shaped by particular geographical and emotional places, even though we may no longer inhabit them (or they us). The one song they played from Funnel Cloud, the album coming out in September, was "Reservoir," a meditation on how the light on a Pittsburgh reservoir holds the song's speaker as nothing else can. "I know a light that shines forever / Howsoever we may roam," the chorus goes, and that light isn't the sun setting over the Pacific or the moon shining over an eastern Tennessee mountain; it's this light over "the iron hills of Pittsburgh / where all my memories are."
It's a poignant set of lyrics to hear during a visit home, it occurred to me as we made our way back from Bloomington to my parents' house last night. (And because I'm about to depart a bit from the concert, let me give you the capsule review: if the Hem / Over the Rhine tour comes near you, you should go; if you can't make it this summer, keep your eye out in the fall, because I can't imagine they won't do some kind of touring for Funnel Cloud. I could have done with far more Hem and far less Over the Rhine; of the two, Hem had far less flash and far more sonic inventiveness and intricate, powerfully felt musicianship. I had heard live recordings of the band, so I already knew that Sally Ellyson's voice isn't noticeably engineered or manipulated in their studio recordings; what I hadn't been able to gauge was how affecting it would be when I found myself listening to it from the center of an auditorium's fourth row. And the fact that we got a chance to meet her afterwards--simply because she came out to the lobby to hang out during the intermission between the Hem and Over the Rhine halves of the show--made an already exceptional evening into a simply exquisite one.)
What made these songs of nostalgia and heartsoreness all the keener for me, though, was that old, familiar loneliness that finger-crooks its way into corners of my consciousness just when I least expect it. Yesterday, it was already getting itself entrenched before we even made it to the show, as I watched my friends doting on and tending to one another and then realized how distant I feel from anything like the possibility of having or doing that kind of doting and tending in my own life. We've been over this ground before, you and I, and I can tell you that I'm always caught unawares when I realize that I've reached this particular question mark again. Once we took our seats in the concert hall, there was no getting away from thinking about couples: nearly everyone around me was in one, and everyone on stage had the telltale band or flashing diamond. (Do you know, by the way, the wedding ring itch that the title character develops in Virginia Woolf's Orlando, as she ages into the Victorian period? You must read it; what a crazy fantasia.) I was particularly startled yesterday because being singly single left me feeling the slightest twinge not just of envy or bewilderment (both old familiars) but even of annoyance--annoyance, that is, at others' displays of affection, at the nuzzling and whispering going on in the rows around me. And suddenly I had to wonder whether I'm in danger of becoming embittered at others' happiness because this one element of my own life hasn't developed as richly as maybe I'd have liked.
I thought about this reaction the whole way home, looking out the window from the backseat of the car; I thought that maybe if I sat long enough with my thinking, looking out at the dark woods as we passed them, I'd feel my way to some kind of answer about how I got to this place where the lyrics of love songs are merely hypothetical, where the movements of desire are things I'm more likely to anatomize at a seminar table than even contemplate in my own right. Somehow, somewhere, over and over again, I know that I made an enormous series of minute decisions, steadily massing a lifetime of steadfast refusals to compromise some fierce necessity in myself. There is no juncture to which I would return in order to do things differently. But by now, I'm wondering whether I wasn't right after all when I wondered aloud, during a break-up years ago, if I simply wasn't cut out for romance. Is it possible that some people simply aren't?
It's at this moment in my musing that any given interlocutor (including the other party to that years-ago break-up) is nearly certain to jump in with consolations that better things are coming, that frogs must be kissed, that good things come to those who wait. Stave off your reassurance; I am still thinking aloud, and I do not want to be interrupted. What if it is by design that I have lavished my attention as I have, loved my words and my worlds with the ardor and abandon I might have offered the right lover? What if I now cannot be spared, or cannot spare myself, from this call?
I think that one of the reasons I like "Reservoir," the song from Hem's forthcoming album, is that it's not about a couple. It's about a person, alone, thinking over the slants of light that have mattered to her. There's a "we": "Starless nights, come fall around me / over all we've left undone. / I know a light that shines forever, / Howsoever we may roam." But it's a loosely confederated, semantically flexible we, and somehow that feels like a blessing to me tonight.
Last night, in the car, I started to think I was seeing flickers of light through the trees at the side of the road. I kept watching as carefully as I could, hoping that I'd discover the flickers weren't just porchlamps on the houses perched in the hills; the night was too foggy for them to be stars. Emmylou Harris was singing her rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" when I realized that they were fireflies, the first of my season, everywhere momentarily brilliant, everywhere ephemerally blazing. They were everywhere, just everywhere, in that thick darkness enveloping the road I have known so long and traveled so many times. And bits of the last stanza of Richard Wilbur's "Mayflies" came alight in my mind, one and then another, though never all the lines, never all the words at once: "I felt myself alone / In a life too much my own / ... / Unless, I thought, I had been called to be / ... / ... one whose task is joyfully to see."
I think I'm too accomplished a close reader to miss the joyful task I've been being given my whole life. I know a light that shines forever, howsoever I may roam.
And what I loved, when we got home, was noticing that the tour poster I'd bought at the show is covered in fireflies.